Michael Gove and Boris Johnson following the results of the referendum, June 24, 2016. (Photographer: Mary Turner/Pool via Bloomberg)
Artillery Row

Nothing has changed

Read the small print on Boris’s “no deal” speech and you’ll realise we’ve been here before

Boris Johnson announced today that to his dismay, Brussels “want the continued ability to control our legislative freedom [and] our fisheries” and that for much of the last few months EU negotiators had “refused to negotiate seriously”.

He went on to say that ‘unless there is some fundamental change of approach”, the UK would “make arrangements that are more like Australia’s based on simple principles of global free trade”.

For Brexiteers who want out, this sounds great. But it’s been Michael Gove’s job to prepare the UK to leave the EU without a trade deal for over a year, so some eurosceptics are asking what, exactly, is different about the UK deciding now to prepare leave without a deal? What initial work has been done to ready the UK for a No Deal end to transition, if that’s what the government is in fact contemplating? Some particularly sour cynics in the ERG even mutter, ‘what initial work was there ever done to seriously get ready for No Deal?’ As their number includes former ministers, questions arise about how seriously either the Johnson or May governments ever seriously contemplated being ready to go for a No Deal outcome.

Suspicion exists amongst ERG MPs about the choreographed nature of the current demarche

Perhaps the Government have stopped talking to the EU?  No.10’s spokesman told journalists that the trade talks were “over” and there was “no point” Michel Barnier coming to the UK next week for talks unless they change “fundamentally”.  A small problem in logic arises in that this reveals London and Brussels are of course still talking. Lord Frost and Michel Barnier will still talk on the phone next week – it’s hard to find out whether they have changed their position if you’re not answering their calls. But then perhaps you already have reasons to be confident about their actual position, whatever showy noises are currently being made on both sides? A persistent drumbeat of suspicion exists amongst ERG MPs about the choreographed nature of the current demarche.

Ok, so perhaps we might still be talking, and still preparing for no deal like usual, but we’ve stopped implementing the Withdrawal Agreement? In fact, there’s no change there either. No.10 confirmed that the Joint Committee, a body with very limited powers made up of UK and EU officials, is still going ahead, rolling out the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Joint Committee can exempt certain goods from customs declarations moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. If we’re still trying to argue over what we’re allowed to move between constituent parts of the UK, then the government is plainly still committed to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Britain’s strongest card is the land border it shares with the EU, which Brussels claims it is worried will be used to smuggle goods into its Single Market (and which Dublin is genuinely terrified about, not least given that Sinn Fein topped the polls in the last Irish general election). Yet it’s not our Single Market, so, as London feebly asserted all the way through the pre-November 2019 withdrawal negotiation process, when and why would we be building a customs border to protect it?  Instead of using the EU’s commitment not to build hard infrastructure between the UK and their Irish flank as leverage, the UK is busily building a border down inside itself, the Irish sea, and proclaiming loudly that it will still stand regardless of the outcome of trade talks. Why, given the undoubted force the EU will bring to bear against the EU in the event of a supposedly looming No Deal, would we want to voluntarily deprive ourselves of this tactical asset? Something doesn’t add up here, and you have to suspect on past Johnson and Gove form, that the numbers are good for either the ERG or unionists.

For the past four and a half years, the UK has never walked away

Downing Street sources point to the upcoming Finance Bill as a way to remedy to all of the problems in the Withdrawal Agreement, but it’s worth recalling that once upon a time they suggested the Internal Market Bill was a panacea, only for a very limited range of powers to emerge which were weakened further by amendments.

Eagle-eyed Brexit watchers will realise we’ve been here before. In October last year when Boris Johnson was negotiating with the EU the talks looked liked they’d collapsed to the extent that The Spectator ran a cover with the words “No Deal” and two articles explaining what no deal meant. But sure enough, like has always been the case for the past four and a half years, the UK has never walked away. Why are we so sure anything has changed?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover